Where we are in the history of software

I have been always thinking that we are very early in the history of software. Using timepiece as a metaphor:

  • The software in the 50’s and 60’s were like the sundial.
  • The software in the 80’s are like the clock made in 16th century: need to be wound daily, and off by a couple minutes daily.
  • The software today are somewhat like the first generation of pocket watch, such as those made by John Harrison: they are pretty sophisticated and works really well, but each of them took John a dozen years to make.

Today there are very few number of watches are handmade. Most of them are hand-assembled, or purely machine made. When we look at the craftsmanship a few centuries ago, we don’t think their techniques are too impressive. A teenage today probably knows everything that the greatest mathematics and physicists knows in the 17-18th century. I believe, in maybe 50 years from now, when people look back at us and how we make software today, they will have similar feeling.

Today, all software are handmade. It has been talked for a decade or two about producing software in the way how today’s plants produce cars. But I believe there will be another several decades when that become true. By the time we retire, I believe most of the software will be written by software. There will be very few of software engineers at that moment. Their main job is to write the “seed” software or component, to kick-start the whole software-writing-software chain. When software is written by software, bugs will be like the fires.

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